STERLING, Va.-Hoping to go back to the future, congressional Republicans on Sept. 23 rolled out their legislative agenda six weeks ahead of this November's mid-term elections. Today's GOP is hoping to repeat the election success of its 1994 forebears. That crop of Republican leaders won the House for the first time in four decades, gaining 54 House seats after promoting a "Contract with America" on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
This time conservative lawmakers unveiled "A Pledge to America" in front of a suburban Virginia hardware store. The backdrop was appropriate because Republican lawmakers have work to do in dropping their "party of no" moniker. More successful the last two years in blocking parts of the Democratic agenda then touting their own ideas, Republicans must assure voters that they will not return to the free-spending ways they showed while leading Congress. Even as Democrats continue to get bad marks in the polls, voters haven't given Republicans passing grades either.
At the Tart Lumber Company in Sterling, Va., Republicans said they based their new priorities on voter feedback gathered at town hall meetings and through the party's America Speaking Out social networking website. Not surprisingly, economic issues topped all concerns from the more than 160,000 ideas and 1 million comments gathered by the project.
The plan hits on five broad areas of concern: jobs, spending, congressional reform, healthcare, and national security.
Proposals include nods to the Tea Party's focus on constitutional government: a requirement that bills include a certification of constitutional legitimacy and that legislation be available for examination by the public at least three days before any congressional vote. Republicans also pledge to hold weekly floor votes on eliminating programs that online voters choose for the chopping block in the GOP's "YouCut" program.
Many of the proposals aren't new, such as permanently extending all the 2001 Bush tax cuts and attacking healthcare costs by both enacting medical liability reform and allowing for the purchase of insurance policies across state lines.
An internal debate focused on how prominent a place to give social issues. In the feedback gathered, voters listed "life" as their third concern after spending and jobs. The document briefly affirms a pledge to honor traditional marriage and to oppose taxpayer-funded abortions, but the bulk of its details are devoted to the economy and the federal budget.
After making his "Pledge to America," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio walked across the street to mingle with the flag-waving crowd that had gathered to chant "stop the spending now" outside this Virginia hardware store. When presented with a metal teapot, Boehner said he would keep it as a souvenir. "I hope it's a lucky charm," said 52-year-old Ken Reid of Leesburg, Va.
The crowd was pleased with the pledge, chanting "Thank you, Speaker Boehner" as Boehner left to return to Washington. Robin Lillis, 48, of Ashburn, Va., said this is the most eager she has been about voting since she supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 as an 18-year-old: "I'm so excited about the opportunity to be heard again."
While social issues may not be driving the ballot this cycle, they are still playing prominent roles in Congress. Senate Republicans on Sept. 21 blocked the political left's push to impose on the military open homosexuality and taxpayer-funded abortions.
In an effort to energize their liberal voting base, Senate Democrats tacked those controversial priorities onto a bill authorizing $726 billion in defense spending. Those included a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy barring gays from openly serving in the military and an amendment allowing military facilities to perform abortions at taxpayers' expense.
But every Republican and two Arkansas Democrats, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, voted to defeat a procedural vote to begin debate on the measure.
"Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks," said Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican who has long been counted as a supporter of the DADT repeal. But in withholding her support, Collins may have been looking ahead to her own reelection in 2014. Despite winning more than 61 percent of the vote in 2008, Collins has likely noted that conservative candidates have toppled many of her moderate Republican colleagues.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats pressed ahead on these provisions despite military opposition. More than 200 military physicians signed a letter to Congress opposing the abortion provision, while 66 top-ranked retired chaplains singed a letter against the repeal of DADT.
In the days before the vote, President Obama's choice to head the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, testified before a Senate committee that changing the policy on gays would hurt military morale and hinder combat efforts in Afghanistan. In the end, senators backed the general over pop star Lady Gaga, who headlined a Maine event supporting the repeal a day before the vote. "Our new law is called, 'If you don't like it, go home,'" Gaga told the crowd.
"Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apparently doesn't realize that if everyone with traditional values leaves the military, virtually no one will be left to defend our country. Certainly not Lady Gaga," said the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins.
Tucked in the bill also was legislation called the Dream Act, which would have allowed children of illegal immigrants to access federal loans to attend college and put them on a path to citizenship if they enroll in college or join the military. The legislation became a political football in the tight Nevada Senate race-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the measure in the defense bill partly as a way to reach out to Hispanic voters in his state. His Republican challenger, Sharron Angle, called the measure a "form of amnesty." Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, voiced his support for the bill, even though he told The Washington Post that the motivation for passing it "may be political."
Eager to leave
Back at the House side of the Capitol, while Republicans rolled out legislative proposals, Democrats have been taking the opposite tack: Already having to defend costly bailouts and stimulus packages as well as controversial healthcare and climate-change votes, some House Democrats are pushing for an early adjournment so they can go home to try to keep their jobs. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., confirmed reports that the House might close shop early this year.
The House hasn't adjourned before Sept. 30 in an election year since 1960. And it is in danger of leaving before passing either annual appropriations bills to fund the government or an annual budget blueprint.
With the expiring 2001 Bush tax cuts the only major item left on the agenda, discussing possible tax hikes is the last thing vulnerable Democrats want to vote on this close to facing voters. But heading home has its risks, too: Democrats may be more reluctant after seeing what happened to Obama at a Sept. 20 town hall meeting in Philadelphia. There Obama supporter Velma Hart gave the president a taste of frustration the likes of which he probably rarely faced in his 2008 campaign rallies.
"Quite frankly, I'm exhausted," began the African-American veteran who now works as a financial officer. "I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people. And I'm waiting, sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet. Is this my new reality?"
It was a quiet summer for town halls compared to last year's furor over the healthcare overhaul. But if Obama's encounter is any indication, it may not be such a serene fall for lawmakers.
The Tea Party has so dominated the political agenda that even the Family Research Council's annual Value Voters Summit focused on "values" like liberty and constitutionalism. In that way, the mid-September event for social conservatives embraced a movement that is not on its face socially conservative. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich railed against the Washington establishment. But in the presidential straw poll at the conference, attendees picked an incumbent-social conservative Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.
-Emily Belz contributed to this report
- Permanently extend all the Bush tax cuts and introduce a 20 percent small business tax deduction
- Repeal and replace healthcare law with medical liability reform and allow for the purchase of insurance policies across state lines
- Cancel the remaining expenditures in the stimulus program
- Return domestic appropriations to 2008 levels
- Freeze federal hiring for non-security jobs
- Phase out government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
- New sanctions on Iran and more money for missile defense
- Permanently end the TARP program
- A cap on discretionary spending